Gareth Southgate has hinted Wayne Rooney’s retirement need not be the end of his England story, though a rousing Wembley send off remains likelier than a fully fledged comeback at next year’s World Cup
Rooney declined a recall to Southgate’s squad for the forthcoming qualifiers against Malta and Slovakia, instead calling time on a distinguished career that brought him a record 53 goals and 119 caps, the most by a Three Lions outfield player.
Had Rooney accepted it appears likely he would have been on hand more as a mentor than a major on-field presence, but Southgate’s esteem for the 31-year-old is not in doubt.
Even though he has been at pains to promote the need for new leaders to emerge the manager declared himself open to considering the former captain in the unlikely event of a major U-turn before Russia 2018.
“I suppose that we’d have to see where he was at, where the squad was at, where everything else was at. It would be foolish to say ‘no’ because anything is possible,” he said.
“Really part of that question should go to Wayne, but I think you’ve also got to respect his decision and the thinking behind that. But have I seen players change their minds? Well yes, I think we all have.”
A more realistic denouement at this stage would be a public celebration of Rooney’s career at Wembley in November. Assuming England have already qualified by then and do not need to contest a play-off, prestige friendlies against Germany and Brazil have been mooted and either would represent a fitting chance to honour the Everton star.
The German FA went as far as recalling the retired Lukas Podolski for a swansong when England visited Dortmund in March and the former Arsenal forward responded with a fitting winner. A similar arrangement may not fit with English traditions but Southgate would be happy Rooney’s exit to be marked in some way.
“(A farwell appearance) has never been done before and we have obviously had World Cup winners but absolutely we should be recognising his career with England and showing appreciation,” he said.
“I know already there is discussion around that and discussion about how we may keep him involved with England. I think there should definitely be some kind of recognition and whatever that looks like should be for the FA to decide.”
In the longer term Southgate has been clear others must now step up to fill the void left by Rooney, who he believes was too often allowed to soak up too much of the pressure.
“Wayne’s been somebody it may have been easy to hide behind for people,” he said.
“He’s the one who has carried that burden. I think that’s been unfair on him. Now everybody has the chance to take the mantle.”
Among those with a chance to stake their claims are uncapped trio Jordan Pickford, Nathaniel Chalobah and Harry Maguire, who were all named in a bumper 28-man squad on Thursday